“So, what do you do?”
When you’re unemployed and want to work, it’s awkward to start off a conversation as you’re introduced to someone new with this question asked of you. Yet, invariably, it seems to be one of the first things they ask you after walking over and saying hello. You’re hoping to make a good impression and the last thing you want to do is share something which exposes you to being viewed in a negative way. The result, you feel bad; they’ve zeroed in immediately on the one thing you’d rather not talk about right off the top.
People generally ask this question in the first minute of meeting someone and there are a few reasons we do. First and foremost, it’s a routine habit for many and it’s easy. When we first meet, we have no history spent together, no frame of reference to ground a conversation in, we’re unaware of any shared interests or views of the world. We’re looking for context; something we can ask that isn’t too personal, is acceptable to ask at a first meeting and we’d rather listen in those first two minutes than do much of the talking ourselves. Getting, rather than giving information empowers the person who asks first.
The empowerment comes having gained the advantage of having more time before they volunteer anything about themselves. Knowing what it is you do work-wise, they can respond to the same question, (for you’re likely to ask exactly the same question in reply) and so what they’ve really done is script the first exchange of information in a predictable way that makes the awkwardness of meeting less so. Ironic isn’t it? They’ve likely got a job and to eliminate their own awkwardness, they ask the very thing that makes it awkward for you!
Now on the other hand, if you’re quick, you can ask the person you’re meeting what it is they do, and when they’ve told you, you can pre-empt their asking you what you do by saying, “Wow, that’s quite interesting, tell me more.” As people often enjoy talking about themselves, you can forestall their asking of you by showing great interest in them and then voluntarily sharing something about yourself, such as a personal trait, general interest, passion or hobby.
But let me point out something to you, or remind you of just in case you’ve forgotten. There is so much more that defines you in addition to your employment status – what you do.
Your identity; how you see yourself and how you are seen by others is not solely comprised of your job/career. You may have other roles; mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, cousin, grandmother, grandfather. You may be a weekend gardener, a woodworker, have a love of food and cooking, a flair for interior design, a book junkie, a church-goer or workout at the gym daily. You could be a caregiver, a fundraiser for a local charity, someone who works to improve the environment or the supporter of a healthcare cause. Maybe you’re a runner, a volunteer in your community, a good friend and trusted holder of secrets. You could be a singer in the choir, a leader in a youth organization, a helper on school outings, the watchful eyes of your neighbourhood, a patron of your local library, a supporter of a political party, and the list is endless.
The point is, there’s so much more to you – to all of us – than solely the job we get paid to do. Allowing others to define us by only one factor – our employment – is to sell ourselves short. But don’t blame others for seeing us this way. It’s our job – yours and mine – to first see the many roles we have. We have to see value in ourselves before we can expect others to see the same value in us. If we fail to share some of the many other facets that make up our identity, we can’t expect people to see us any other way but that which we share. So in other words, answer the question, “So what do you do?” by saying, “I’m not working at the moment”, and you’ve provided the person asking with only one piece of information for them to put you in some context they can understand. As unemployed is not generally a favourable situation, it’s them that feels awkward; and it’s their own awkwardness at how to proceed that often has them excuse themselves and move on.
And here, all the while, you thought it was only you who felt the situation awkward. Nope. Not true.
So you’ve got a choice; you always have a choice. You could state your unemployed and then go on to share something you’re passionate about or involved in that gives them the opportunity to respond favourably to whatever it is you share. Or you could just share what that passion or involvement is like this exchange:
“So what do you do?”
“At the moment I’m really concerned with the environment and so I’m involved with some community initiatives making our local area more sustainable for the future.” No hint of unemployment, no shame or embarrassment and you’ve given the person asking something positive to respond to. Dignity preserved.
In advance of meeting others, you could also consider what YOU’LL ask them other than their own employment status. They too might be loathing the same question!